A showdown is looming among rebels in the southern Philippines as insurgents factionalize and splinter amid infighting over government sponsored peace talks, threatening the fragile ceasefire and forcing an unlikely alliance between the military and the Moro Islamic Liberation Front (MILF).
The MILF fired the latest salvo, which was designed to shut down rogue Commander Ustadz Ameril Umbra Kato, who has arrest warrants issued against him for murder and arson but who has been protected by the ceasefire agreement struck between Manila and the MILF leadership.
Kato has opposed peace talks aimed at ending the long-running conflict, and established the Bangsamoro Islamic Freedom Movement (BIFM). However, the MILF responded, determining that Kato ‘is no longer with us’ – effectively removing his immunity against prosecution.
Fears of an escalation in violence are genuine.
Lt. Gen. Arthur Tabaquero, chief of the Armed Forces of the Philippines’ Eastern Mindanao Command, has also noted the ceasefire allows the military and the MILF to conduct joint actions against criminals and terrorists under the Ad-Hoc Joint Action Group. He says a manhunt will be launched once Kato, former head of the MILF 105th Base Command, officially renounces the MILF.
This was expected, given his defiance of the MILF Central Committee, the formation of the BIFM earlier this year, its attacks on troops and former comrades, and the passing of a September 26 deadline imposed by the MILF that allowed him time to cool down and return to the fold.
Authorities are also contending with militants who have regrouped under another banner called Awliyah, led by a commander identified as Hatib Zacaria. Zacaria led an attack on government troops guarding a school construction site that is being funded by the United States.
Under his command, about 50 gunmen attacked two marine detachments in the hills around Talipao in the southern Philippines in late September, but were repulsed after two hours of fierce fighting. Thirteen gunmen, two marines and at least one villager were killed. Six other military personnel were wounded before the gunmen withdrew into the forest.
Rumours are already being spread about the Awliyah, whose followers claim Zacaria and his henchmen have supernatural powers. Awliyah simply means ‘leader.’ The authorities, for their part, claim the Awliyah is largely made up of hard-line elements from the Moro National Liberation Front (MNLF), as opposed to the MILF, and is associated with the al-Qaeda-linked Abu Sayyaf, which has been leaderless for more than a year but continues to battle troops between routine acts of banditry, kidnappings and extortion.
Hardly comforting was last weekend’s crash of a Philippine Air Force UH-1H helicopter, which killed three crew members while transporting supplies to Sulu, where troops were battling Abu Sayyaf militants.
Awliyah associates include rogue members of the MNLF under Jawalibal Ujod and Khabier Malik, another renegade MNLF leader. The attack was launched about 2.5 kilometres from Malik’s base; he is facing criminal charges after his group captured a government peace mission in February 2007.
Their rise also comes as Jemaah Islamiyah (JI), the terrorist outfit that enjoyed a close association with al-Qaeda and Osama bin Laden, was effectively obliterated by forces as far flung as Indonesia and Pakistan after a decade-long counter terrorism operation was launched following the September 11 strikes on New York and Washington. Still, JI’s demise has created a vacuum in the southern Philippines, which the BIFM and Awliyah seem intent on filling.
More broadly, dissent within the rebel Mindanao ranks isn’t without precedent. The MILF was formed in 1977 as a hard-line splinter of the MNLF, which it split from in 1981 after peace initiatives failed to win over the hardliners. Ironically, 30 years ago, it was the MILF that was seen as the extreme element. Today, though, it’s considered the moderate negotiator and potential ally for the military in hunting down recalcitrant rebels.
‘The military held its punches against Kato’s group because of the ceasefire mechanism,’ Brig. Gen. Ariel Benardo, head of the government’s ceasefire panel says. He added the priority was not to jeopardize the truce and that any action would be coordinated with the MILF.
Kato initially gained international prominence in 2008, when a court in Manila overruled a peace deal struck between the MILF and the government of then-President Gloria Arroyo that gave the rebels an ancestral domain in central Mindanao. That legal decision resulted in widespread attacks across the south, leaving 300 people dead and 600,000 people homeless. Four decades of civil war have killed 120,000 people, displaced another two million and ensured the resource rich Muslim south remains the poorest of the poor in the Philippines.
The MNLF signed a peace accord with the government in 1996 after it dropped its secessionist bid. It settled for limited Muslim autonomy in the predominantly Roman Catholic Philippines, but many Moro rebels didn’t lay down their arms. They claim the Philippine government reneged on its promises.
The government insists it’s attempting to address those issues. At the same time, the latest talks with the MILF have stalled since August, with the MILF again demanding that the creation of a sub-state be placed firmly on the political agenda.
But it is the latest ructions within the MILF and MNLF, not disputes at the negotiating table, that have signalled a significant shift in the politics of Mindanao, while providing Manila with its greatest obstacle since Benigno Aquino was swept into office more than a year ago amid promises of peace in the country’s south.